For Houser, SAMA ‘it’s right time’

Fifth director in art museum’s history also first female lead

Vanessa Houser looks at a poster of Bette Davis at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Loretto. Houser was chosen as the new director of SAMA, replacing G. Gary Moyer, who is retiring. Mirror photo by Patt Keith

LORETTO — “It’s a very transitional fall,” said Vanessa Houser, the new director of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art.

Houser was speaking about herself, her family and her new work family.

Interviewed on her fourth day at the helm vacated by the retirement of G. Gary Moyer, Houser is the fifth director in SAMA’s history, the first woman and the first director with experience in development.

“I think I see it as a milestone,” Houser said, referring to her first-woman status and acknowledging that a “certain demographic” may put more emphasis on it.

“When my daughter is older, I will certainly share it with her as a learning opportunity. It couldn’t have come at a better time given the national — and even international — conversation about a woman’s role in our culture.”

Fundraising background

Houser, a Loretto resident, previously served as the lead on fundraising activities for the Western Region of Children’s Miracle Network at Geisinger Health System.

During her nine-year tenure, she said, she and “an army of dedicated volunteers and part-time staff” raised $7 million in a geographic area stretching across nine counties and funded pediatric advancements in care, including summer camps for patients with chronic illnesses.

Houser expressed gratitude to Moyer for staying through September to assist with a smooth transition.

“I’ve received a very warm welcome from all the SAMA staff and the board of trustees,” she said. “Everyone is so graciously sharing their knowledge. I’m totally honored to have been chosen. Everyone’s passion is so clear and obvious, and they desire the museum to succeed. It is so wonderful to work in all our communities and especially my home community.”

At SAMA, her goal is to expand the arts in education program to further engage local families.

“When we expose children to the value of arts in society at large, those children will be our future supporters,” she said. “It’s extremely valuable to provide family-friendly and immersive experiences.”

Role models

The daughter of Robert and Linda Bernard of Hastings, she credits her parents with demonstrating a strong work ethic and the value of volunteerism.

“My mom absolutely showed me by example,” Houser said. “I gained my work ethic, motivation and drive from both my parents.”

Her mother often worked two and three jobs as an LPN and later as a registered nurse. Houser is the oldest of three girls. Her father, an ironworker, traveled regionally often for extended periods.

Her career mentor at Geisinger, Carol Tevis, now retired, taught her how to remain calm, be a leader and continually develop in her career.

Houser “dabbles” as a water colorist and has one appearance at Cresson Lake Playhouse on her resume. At her in-laws for dinner, shortly after the birth of her son, sisters-in-law Claire Houser and Cecilia Farabaugh were discussing a cast opening.

“I thought I could do it because it didn’t have a lot of singing,” she laughed, referring to it as a creative outlet. She likely won’t stretch her acting chops again, instead leaving the stage to her very musically talented in-laws.

‘Right person’

Her father-in-law, Tim Houser, is a member of the SAMA Board of Trustees.

However, Jim Cayce, board president, on behalf of the search committee said: “He (Tim Houser) does not serve on the board’s executive committee … He was not involved in the selection of Vanessa, nor did he have a vote on the hire, as the offer came directly from (the search committee).”

A national search started in December through an advertisement in the American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM) webpage, Cayce said. A diverse pool of applicants responded.

“As the search wore on,” Cayce stated, “It became apparent to us that what we were looking for was a person with proven fundraising skills; preferably someone local who knew the area and the people; was social media savvy; and who had great interpersonal and management skills. From our first conversation with Vanessa and our later interview, we knew we had the right person.”

One month shy of her 33rd birthday, Houser’s fund­raising and media acumen is enhanced by youthful passion, her local ties and her perspective as a daughter, wife and mother, said director emeritus Michael Strueber.

“Vanessa is the right person at the right time in the museum’s 42-year history,” Strueber said.

Reaching toward youth

SAMA, which began in 1976, serves the rural populations of central and southwestern Pennsylvania.

It is the nation’s longest running satellite museum system with sites in Altoona, Bedford, Johns­town, Ligonier and Loretto.

Raising dollars has become more and more necessary as federal and state funding sources disappear and shrink, respectively. Also, Strueber said, a further difficulty is an the exodus of young people and the disappearance of “old, old money” from families who made philanthropy a priority.

“The goal is for each museum to be self-sustaining and be supported by each of their communities. That’s Vanessa’s challenge,” Strueber said. “The key to SAMA’s future lies in increasing engagement and support from young families and their children — the next generation of supporters.

“She’s vivacious, extroverted and approachable with proven fundraising abilities. The trend nationally is for museums to select leaders from the business sector rather than with a doctorate in the arts.”

Strueber said he “highly endorsed” Houser because “Vanessa had the absolute best practical fundraising skills than anyone who applied. It’s a win-win as she is a young mother at a time when the museum needs to bring in young families. The museum board has also added several younger trustees who are passionate about the arts and in particular, passionate about the visual arts.”

Staff writer Patt Keith can be reached at 949-7030.